If guitar solos are the sentences of music, then riffs are the phrases. Riffs draw us into the song: They're the billboard, the bumper sticker and the pull quote. As much as we like to think we have the patience to hear someone's thesis every time we listen to a song, let's be honest: We don't. Sure, put those longwinded ideas in the middle of the tune, get a little circuitous, but keep the diversion short and get back to the theme. Better yet, make the whole song like the Cliff's Notes version -- only give us the stuff we really need to know. Brevity! Clarity! Sincerity! Perhaps we are true followers of utilitarianism when it comes to music.
The best riffs in music are difficult to divorce from the best songs. I've listened to a lot of new albums or stood in the crowd at a show, excited by the possibility that a catchy riff delivers, only to have the riff buried and obscured by the wrong vocal melody.
Yet a fantastic riff is still a fantastic riff: Some are so full-throttled and sick that you'll excuse the mediocre vocals and love the song anyway. I feel like a lot of '60s and '70s blues-inspired rock falls into this category -- like The Groundhogs, for instance, or Blue Cheer.
Some bands have guitarists that are practitioners of great riffs, like Gang of Four, Franz Ferdinand and Fugazi. And certain genres -- like post-punk -- lend themselves to terse, immediate phrasing, forgoing the profligate and excessive. But classic rock and blues-rock feel like where the riff was born. From Bo Diddley to Chuck Berry, bleeding over into Led Zeppelin, Queen, Cream, the Stones and The Beatles, it is those bands whose riffs we would recognize anywhere.
I don't like to think of myself as loving only the instantly gratifying, or as preferring shouts and murmurs to speeches and soliloquies, but sometimes -- not always -- I do.
So, today, let's celebrate the best phrases in music. What are your favorite riffs? And, in general, do you prefer guitar riffs or guitar solos?